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Progress on guns? Fresh talks with GOP ahead of Senate action

Some Senate Republicans have quietly started working on a once-stalled compromise effort to expand background checks for guy buyers. It’s a glimmer of progress for a critical component of the gun control legislation the Senate plans to take up next week. 

At the top of that engagement list: Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican with a strong rating from the National Rifle Association. Senate aides familiar with the developments said that Toomey is engaged in talks with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s also reaching out to a number of other GOP senators. 

Also engaged in discussions with Manchin is Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, Senate aides said, although those conversations haven't progressed as far. Toomey, meanwhile, is also discussing a separate plan being circulated by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.

Coburn had been at the core of Democratic efforts to reach a compromise on background checks. But they couldn’t get over concerns about how to keep records of private gun sales. According to multiple Senate aides, Coburn is now passing around his own proposal, hoping to garner significant GOP support for a plan that would expand background checks but not require private merchants to keep records of the guns they sell.

Coburn's office denied the Oklahoma doctor is shopping his own bill.

Toomey has yet to officially sign on to any proposal.

"Sen. Toomey and his staff are talking to a lot of folks both in Pennsylvania and in the Capitol on the issues of guns in the hopes we get to an approach that works," said Toomey spokeswoman E.R. Anderson.

Focus on Manchin and his conversations are now a priority for Democratic leaders. It’s a shift from weeks of stasis following the failed talks with Coburn, and represents at least the potential for a breakthrough on President Barack Obama's proposed package of new gun laws.

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In the coming weeks, the Senate plans to vote on a bill that would expand background checks to private gun sales and make gun trafficking and straw purchasing (purchasing a gun and giving it someone who couldn’t legally obtain one) a federal crime. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised votes on an assault weapons ban and a measure to outlaw high-capacity magazines.

The new engagement reflects the complicated political realities emerging in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings that killed 20 elementary school children and 6 adults. Obama wants action on the issue -- possibly even if he has to sacrifice some of what gun control advocacy groups are pushing for. 

"What the president wants to sign is the strongest gun bill he can sign," senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Thursday at an event sponsored by Politico. "What we have to make sure is that whatever we do is better than current law."

Reid wants to show that the Senate is taking action -- "In order to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks," he said last month -- but he has to protect Democratic lawmakers who hail from rural, Republican-leaning states like Arkansas if he wants to maintain a Democratic majority in the upper chamber. 

Most of the Republicans who are willing to talk, meanwhile, hail from swing states with lots of suburban voters open to new controls following Newtown. For Toomey, for example, that's the thousands of voters who live outside big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"There are people who do want something to vote for," said a Senate Republican aide familiar with the conversations. The numbers, after all, are there: polls show overwhelming numbers of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers.